Colin White explores the extraordinary events surrounding the Battle of Trafalgar and dispels the myths about one of history's most significant naval engagements
One of the most popular exhibits in the Royal Naval Museum, alongside Horatio Nelson's great flagship HMS Victory, in the Historic Dockyard at Portsmouth, is a state of the art "experience" - Trafalgar! Visitors walk the gundeck of Victory as cannons recoil violently, acrid gun smoke swirls, enemy shots crash home, splintering the ship's sides, and screaming men are carried away to be treated by the surgeon.
Before they enter the gundeck, visitors are invited to try a short Trafalgar computer quiz, designed to test their level of knowledge about the battle. They can then take the same quiz after their visit to see how much knowledge they have gained. One of the questions is: "Where is Trafalgar?" Offered a choice between the English Channel, the Bay of Biscay, or south-west Spain, a surprising number select the Channel.
Maybe it's not surprising at all, though. For, like so many great historic events, the Battle of Trafalgar has attracted numerous myths - and one of the most persistent is that it saved England from invasion. This in turn conjures images of French battleships advancing up the Channel, like the Spanish Armada.
The truth is that when the combined fleet - and it should not be forgotten that there were 15 Spanish, as well as 18 French ships present - sailed from Cadiz on the morning of October 19, 1805, it did not head north to the Channel. Instead, it turned south, to sail through the Straits of Gibraltar, into the Mediterranean. Moreover, at that moment, Napoleon Bonaparte and his Grand Army were not poised on the Channel shores, ready to invade. Instead, they were hundreds of miles away, deep inside Austria.
Indeed, the very day after the fleet sailed, they beat the Austrians at the Battle of Ulm.
In other words, by the time Trafalgar was fought on October 21, 1805, the planned invasion of Britain was off and a completely new campaign had begun. Napoleon's orders to Vice Admiral Pierre de Villeneuve were to make an attack on Naples in support of his Austrian campaign.
Throughout 1804 and the first half of 1805, Napoleon had spent millions of francs creating a special "Army of England", and a huge flotilla of barges to transport it across the Channel. However, when he tried to unite his scattered fleets of battleships and push them into the Channel, to cover his army's crossing, he was outmanoeuvred by the Royal Navy and skilfully blocked at every turn. Finally, in late August 1805, even he could see that his plans were not going to work. So, when he heard that Austria, hitherto neutral, was mobilising her army, he turned with evident relief to the sort of warfare he understood best and struck at Austria before she was fully prepared.
Nonetheless, even though the invasion had been called off, there was still a large combined fleet of French and Spanish battleships sheltering behind the fortifications of Cadiz. This represented a continuing threat to Britain. So, in September 1805, the British Admiralty decided to assemble a special task force off Cadiz. To command it they sent out their star player - the victor of three battles and acknowledged leader of his profession, Vice-Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson.
Nelson took with him a battle-plan that he hoped would help the British to win a victory of annihilation. He even had a special name for it: in a letter to his beloved mistress, Emma Hamilton, he called it "The Nelson Touch". It was very simple. He planned to divide his fleet into divisions.
One part of his force would concentrate on the enemy rear, crushing it with superior gunfire. In the meantime, the rest of his ships would prevent the remaining enemy ships from coming to the aid of their comrades. This, he hoped, would bring about "a pell-mell battle", in which the superior gunnery and ship-handling of his crews would have maximum advantage.
Another Trafalgar myth is that this plan was new and revolutionary, involving tactics that no one had used before. Modern research has established that the individual elements of the plan were not at all revolutionary. They had been tried out, by both British and French admirals, in the latter half of the 18th century. Indeed, we now know that Villeneuve actually predicted to his captains, days before the battle, almost exactly the tactics Nelson would use.
However, there were two key aspects that made the Trafalgar plan special.
First, we now know that Nelson had worked out his plan well in advance. In 2001, a rough sketch was discovered in the archive of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, clearly drawn by Nelson to demonstrate his ideas to a colleague, at least six weeks before the battle, while he was on leave in England. Labelled "the Holy Grail of naval history" by historians, this apparently insignificant piece of paper is currently one of the key exhibits in the National Maritime Museum current exhibition, Nelson Napoleon.
Second, Nelson shared the plan in advance with all his captains. A pre-battle briefing seems commonplace to us today, but in the early 19th century it was truly revolutionary. Senior officers rarely discussed their ideas with subordinates in this open, collegiate way. Our modern understanding of "the Nelson touch" is that it was more to do with leadership style than with individual tactics. Indeed, in this bicentenary year Nelson's distinctive style has formed the basis for a number of case studies of modern methods of leadership - notably, the National Maritime Museum's innovative Leading Lives course for sixth-formers.
Sailing into battle
The two fleets sighted each other at about 6am on October 21, off Cape Trafalgar, but the wind was light and so the first shots were not fired until midday. The French and Spanish fought with great bravery, but they were isolated and leaderless, while the British were working to a single preconcerted plan and with the advantage that they were much better trained in delivering rapid, accurate gunnery.
One British division, under Vice-Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood, gradually subdued the allied rear, while the other division, under Nelson, first captured most of their centre and then fought off a belated counter-attack by the van under Rear-Admiral Dumanoir. By 4.30pm, it was all over.
Eighteen of the 33 French and Spanish battleships had been captured or destroyed, four escaped only to be captured a fortnight later, and the remainder struggled back into Cadiz, very badly damaged. It was a knockout blow to both the Spanish and the French navies, from which neither really recovered.
However, for the British, triumph at this extraordinary result was overshadowed by the news that Nelson was dead. Struck down by a French musket ball on the quarterdeck of his flagship HMS Victory, at about 1.15pm, he was carried down to the cockpit below the waterline, where the wounded were treated in comparative safety. After three hours of agony, very bravely borne, he died at about 4.30pm, shortly after he had been told that his fleet had gained a great victory.
Even his protracted death scene, painstakingly recorded by three eyewitnesses, has become the subject of myth. The Victorians, hating the fact that the great hero actually asked another man to kiss him, invented the ludicrous fiction that the desperately wounded admiral suddenly broke into Turkish: "Kismet, (fate) Hardy!" In fact, all the eyewitness accounts agree that the kiss was both asked for and given. Indeed, almost as if to ensure that there should be no doubt about it, Hardy kissed his friend twice - one on the cheek and then again, after a short pause, on the forehead. Nelson's response set the seal on this wonderfully poignant exchange: "Now I am satisfied. Thank God I have done my duty."
Trafalgar may not have saved England from invasion, but it has acquired symbolic significance that sets it apart from any other naval battle. It was the last great battle of the sailing era fought in mid-ocean.
The next time two great fleets clashed again in European waters they were the steam-powered dreadnoughts of the First World War The battle confirmed Britain's command of the seas and steadied her on the course that was leading her to a world-wide empire, depending almost entirely on sea communications. Moreover, it gave the Royal Navy an unmatched tradition of victory that is still potent 200 years later.
Perhaps, most importantly, Trafalgar was also the swan-song of Horatio Nelson. It is arguable that, if Nelson had not been killed, we would not be remembering the battle so elaborately this year. His death, almost at the very moment of victory, added a bitter-sweet quality to the story that lifts it above a simple narration of battle tactics and Boys Own Paper heroics. It also reminds us that this is, above all, a story about people and their experiences of war.
A recent research programme, the Ayshford Trafalgar Roll, has established the personal details, including place of origin, of all those who fought on the British side. As a result, we now know that they came from every part of the country and not just from the obvious maritime areas. Every part of Britain has Trafalgar veterans to honour and this autumn many of these hitherto obscure heroes are being rescued from obscurity and honoured alongside their famous commander.
It is already clear that all these new insights and the widespread interest generated by the bicentenary events are changing the public perception of Trafalgar. Hopefully, from now on, a much higher proportion of the Royal Naval Museum's visitors will be able to get the location of the battle right.
Dr Colin White is director, Trafalgar 200, based at the National Maritime Museum. His latest book, Nelson the Admiral (Sutton Publishing pound;20), is based on his new research into Nelson's battles and his leadership style Exhibitions
* Nelson Napoleon runs until November 13 at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. For details and to book tickets, go to www.nmm.ac.uk
* Trafalgar! is a permanent display at the Royal Naval Museum, Historic Dockyard, Portsmouth. For details about the museum go to www.royalnavalmuseum.org
The Trafalgar Festival 2005 www.SeaBritain2005.com
Nelson and his career www.admiralnelson.org
National Maritime Museum's Leading Lives course www.nmm.ac.uk
Ayshford Trafalgar Roll www.ageofnelsonTrafalgarRoll
Trafalgar Way www.newtrafalgardispatch.org
Trafalgar Woods www.treeforall.orgtrafalgar